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Infection of a Joint Replacement

Problems due to infection after joint replacement surgery


Updated June 15, 2014

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The most commonly performed joint replacements are knee replacements, hip replacements, and shoulder replacements. Much less commonly, other joints, such as elbows, wrists, and ankles, are being replaced as well. One of the problems with joint replacements, is that infections of these implanted joints can become a very serious problem.

Why do joint replacement infections cause problems?
Bacteria are usually well controlled by our immune system. Once an infection is detected, our immune system rapidly responds, and attacks the infecting bacteria. However, implanted materials, like those found in a joint replacement, can allow infections to persist. Our immune system is unable to attack bacteria that live on these implants, and these infections can become serious problems. If an infection of an implant goes untreated, the problem can worsen, and the bacteria can gain such a foothold that they can become a systemic problem.

The reason infections are such a significant problem is that bacteria cannot be easily eliminated from a joint replacement implant. Despite excellent antibiotics and preventative treatments, patients with a joint replacement infection often will require removal of the implanted joint in order to cure the infection.

What is done to prevent infections of total joint replacements?
At the time of surgery, there are several measures taken to minimize the risk of infection of a total joint replacement. Some of the steps are known to lower the risk of infection, some are thought to help but not known. Among the most important, known measures to lower the risk of infection after total joint replacement are:

  • Antibiotics before and after surgery
    Antibiotics are given within one hour of the start of surgery (usually once in the operating room) and continued for a short period following the procedure.


  • Short operating time and minimal OR traffic
    Efficiency in the operation by your surgeon helps to lower the risk of infection by limiting the time the joint is exposed. Limiting the number of operating room personnel entering and leaving the room is thought to decrease risk of infection.


  • Use of strict sterile technique and sophisticated sterilization techniques
    Care is taken to ensure the operating site is sterile, the instruments have been autoclaved and not exposed to any contamination, and the implants are packaged to ensure their sterility.

After the operation, the risk of developing an infection from an outside source is reduced, but there is still a risk of developing an infection from the blood stream. Because of this, patients with a joint replacement implant should take antibiotics before invasive procedures such as dental work, colonoscopies, etc. It is known that these procedures may cause a transient risk of bacteria entering the blood stream. Antibiotics will help control this and prevent joint infection.

What happens when a total joint replacement becomes infected?
When a total joint replacement becomes infected, it may loosen, become painful, and need to be removed. Unfortunately, even if the implant is washed clean during surgery, most types of infections require removal of the implant to cure the infection.

Why did I get an infection after joint replacement surgery?
There are several risk factors for developing an infection after a total joint replacement, but most patients have no identifiable cause for developing an infection. Some of the risk factors include:

  • Immune deficiencies (e.g. HIV, lymphoma), or immune suppressive treatments (e.g. chemotherapy)
  • Diabetes
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Obesity
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